The spontaneous shooting of a father over some texting and tossed popcorn had barely grabbed our attention when the headlines came about the even more horrific crime in New Mexico. Both were senseless, both all the more riveting for their quotidian settings. The antsy atmosphere of a pre-screening theater, the casual boredom of a student assembly – these are the universally-identifiable situations of stand-up comedy routines. To have them turned inside-out by unspeakable violence provokes primal outrage and fear.
Because school shootings absorb us especially thoroughly (they are especially appalling), they attract the most sympathy for the gun control cause. Support for stronger regulation is never more ardent than after such tragedies. The New Mexico school shooting will likely stir up more calls for changes to the law. It’s terrible that it takes such tragedy against our kids to motivate us to action.
But I wish more Americans realized that it’s shootings like the one in the Tampa, Florida suburb at the movie theatre that say more about how gun control laws have failed everyday Americans, and made us less safe, not more so.
We may have the good sense to understand that the wall-to-wall coverage of school shootings is still, thank God, out of proportion to their frequency. It’s their infrequency, in addition to their awfulness, that makes them news. Advocates of gun control use them as evidence not because they represent the scope of the problem, but because most people instinctively understand that part of the tragedy is the sense that it could have been prevented. The mind recoils so thoroughly at the thought of children murdering children, we cling to the notion that something could be done. Gun control advocates try to leverage this desperation into laws that often only tangentially intersect with the violence in the news.
But gun advocates can trump gun control support exactly because these child-on-child crimes stir such desperation and are so shocking to our sensibilities. This may be why support for regulation seems to fade so quickly. Yes, something could be done, the National Rifle Association and others say: we can protect our children from evil by disarming evil. They argue for mental health restrictions or “enforcing existing law”, both methods that depend on the belief that bad things happen because of bad people. If you’re a good guy, they argue, guns aren’t just neutral but perhaps necessary. We shouldn’t keep guns out of the hands of thegood guys.
Curtis Reeves was a retired police officer, the very definition of a good guy. He may also prove to be unbalanced in a legally-applicable way, but that wouldn’t have prevented him from getting a concealed carry permit in Florida. Since Florida grants concealed carry permits via its Department of Agriculture, rather than, say a criminal justice agency, the state cannot use the National Instant Criminal Background Check System to screen applicants. To put that another way, Florida simply doesn’t have the federal background check required in every other state that grants concealed carry permits.
Indeed, even if Florida had a more stringent conceal carry screening process – or if it didn’t have a concealed carry law at all – Reeves could have had his weapon on him. Retired law enforcement personnel are allowed by federal law to carry a concealed weapon in any jurisdiction except where it’s explicitly banned by law or the property owner. This is a loophole that may seem natural (again: good guys!), but it’s actually a reflection of just how deeply we’ve bought into the myth that guns aren’t the problem and we only need worry about who has them. That’s not true: we need to worry about guns, no matter who has them.
The National Rifle Association likes to argue that criminals, or people intent on committing a crime, will obtain guns no matter what the law says. Among the 5,417 gun homicides in 2012 that the FBI assigns a circumstance to (3,438 are “unknown circumstances”), a mere 1,324 were committed in conjunction with another felony. Three times that (3,980) were committed by otherwise law-abiding citizens. Of that, over half (1,968) were the result of an argument that escalated fatally out of control.
To put it another way: otherwise unpremeditated murders, where people kill out of momentary rage, are the single most common type of gun homicide in America. More than gangland killings (822); more than murders committed during robberies (505) and drug deals (311) combined.
Much as with gun suicides (which account for a majority of all gun deaths), these are the deaths that the government has the most power to stop, simply by making guns harder to get a hold of. Any argument can end in violence, no one can stop that. But if there’s a gun involved, the likelihood of someone dying is far greater.
You keep a gun out of the argument, you will save lives. This is not hypothetical. A person may be intent on killing someone else, but it is simply harder to do with anything else. That’s why forms of homicide other than guns account for only about a third of all homicides. Someone gets angry at someone else, they may reach for a weapon. If we make guns harder to get, by requiring a test for the license, or by banning handguns more broadly, the one at hand might be far less deadly. Like, say, popcorn.
['Man pointing a gun' via Shutterstock]